More on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome


Jan 20, 2003
17 Mar 2003 12:26
UN agency seeks China clue on killer sickness
By Richard Waddington
GENEVA, March 17 (Reuters) - The World Health Organisation is pinning its hopes on China for a breakthrough against a mystery killer respiratory sickness that has sparked the first worldwide disease alert in a decade.
Health experts suspect the first cases of the highly infectious Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that has killed nine people and infected over 400 worldwide appeared last November in China, although it may only have spread beyond its borders this month.
Late on Sunday, Chinese health authorities sent the World Health Organisation in Geneva an initial report on its handling of the outbreak a day after the U.N. body issued a worldwide travel alert as cases appeared outside southeast Asia.
With four months of meticulously obtained information from China, we believe we will have the answers to how this disease acts in populations and how we can best deal with it, said David Heymann, WHO head of communicable diseases.
We are now working closely with the Chinese authorities, he said, although it was still not proven that all the various suspected cases in different countries were the same disease.
WHO says it cannot be certain of the link until it knows the cause.
The U.N. health body issued its travel alert, including detailed instructions to governments and airlines on how to spot symptoms, as reports came of two deaths from severe pneumonia in Canada and a suspected case in Germany.
Until then, suspected cases had been largely limited to China, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Two people are also in isolation in a Geneva hospital after developing high fevers and breathing problems, symptoms identified with SARS by WHO, which is calling it an atypical pneumonia.
All those affected in Europe and North America had recently been to southeast Asia or had a relative that had.
The reason we are alarmed is because we do not know what is causing it. If this be a disease such as a new influenza, it could spread very rapidly throughout the world, Heymann told Reuters in an interview.
Although he stressed that there was no evidence yet that it was influenza, world health authorities have long been preparing for some new strain of ''flu they fear could repeat the devastation of the 1918 pandemic when more people died than in World War One.
SARS is proving unreceptive to traditional pneumonia treatments, although the Chinese authorities had clearly had some success with other approaches, Heymann said.
The Chinese have indicated that they have tried antibiotics but that these have not been effective...But they have been able to support them (patients) with respirators where necessary and other interventions which seem to have worked, he said.
WHO is asking China for more information on the treatments. It was also not known how many of the 305 people that China says fell ill had already recovered after the disease peaked there in early February. The authorities say five people died.
The WHO official added that in Hanoi, where one nurse has died and around 50 people have been affected, some patients appeared to be getting better although they had not been discharged from hospital. Nearly 100 are ill in Hong Kong.
Despite the travel alert, Heymann said that tourists and businessmen should not be afraid to visit southeast Asia.
People should continue to travel. This is not a disease that people will get by walking through a market place or by sitting in a public place. What we understand is that there has to be close contact, Heymann said.
This was why so many of those infected so far were hospital workers, he added.
He also said that there was no reason to believe that the outbreak had been caused deliberately as an act of bioterrorism. There is no reason to believe that this is an event that might have been deliberately caused, he said.